The Shuttle, the Station, and Orion

By Phil Plait | March 25, 2008 9:47 pm

I just got back down off my roof with The Little Astronomer; we were up there to watch the Shuttle and space station rise into the sky. The view was very cool: they rose over Boulder, and as they got higher they headed straight into Orion; specifically Rigel, the bright star marking Orion’s knee. Even better: as they rose, they passed into the Earth’s shadow. As the sunlight gradually dimmed for them, we saw them get fainter. We didn’t see the Jules Verne remote cargo carrier, unfortunately. I’m not sure why.

Best yet: I got pictures! I loaded all six onto Flickr. Below are two cool shots; click them to embiggen to Flickr.

This is a 10 second exposure taken a few minutes after 9:00 p.m. The odd glow is from a neighbor’s light across the street. It’s pretty, though! You can see Rigel just above center, and Orion’s belt at the top. The ISS was pretty bright and very easy to see; it’s the streak in the middle.

The next picture was taken about 15 seconds later. The scene has changed!

First, you can see both the Shuttle (lower streak in line with the upper one) and the ISS. Second, the ISS has faded! See how it gets dimmer as it moves up; the line gets fainter near the top? It was passing into twilight, and so as seen from the station the Sun was "setting", and the station itself got dimmer. The Shuttle dimmed a few seconds later when it got that high off the horizon.

Again, go to Flickr to see these in higher resolution. They turned out pretty well! I may have to put the full-res versions someplace.

And remember: all I had here was a tripod, a digital camera, and some foreknowledge. That’s really all it takes! So the next time something like this happens, you can get pictures too. It’s not hard.


Comments (30)

  1. Thanks for sharing these photos. I wonder if a diagram (or a 3-D model one could move through) showing the position of the sun, earth and station/shuttle would help me visualize this better. I know you astronomers can do this easily in your heads! Maybe a Google space maps mashup sort of thing.

  2. Michael Lonergan

    “I just got back down off my roof with The Little Astronomer; we were up there to watch the Shuttle and space station…”

    “The odd glow is from a neighbor’s light across the street.”

    Do your neighbors, not, you know,… kind of worry about what is going on at your place… I’m thinking you’d make quite an interesting neighbor! :)

  3. It’s coming back if you want to get some shots if your neighbor turned his light off.

  4. I don’t get another view tonight; they’ll be too far west and already in Earth’s shadow when they rise.

  5. Mike McCants

    Jules Verne was about 4 minutes ahead of the ISS and thus a little farther east. I estimated that it was magnitude 1 at culmination increasing slightly to magnitude 0.5 after culmination. All three satellites were seen about 8:31 to 8:36 PM CDT from Austin, TX on a very favorable pass high in the southeast.

  6. Josh

    You’re a rad dad!

  7. yumenoko

    That was sooooo awesome! Thank you very much for the heads up earlier today, Phil. I sat up in my loft by the SSW window, binocs in hand, hoping I’d “know ’em when I see ’em”. If they were any brighter and smoother crossing the sky they would have made me run for my sunglasses. It was a nearly perfect, gorgeous arc, and incredibly bright. Planes in the sky around and near them were quite pale by comparison. I was so impressed that I popped out the window screen and jumped out onto the roof to follow the view to fade. I would have been disappointed to have missed that. (I’m in the northern part of LA, as a point of reference)

  8. starcat

    If I didn’t know what i was looking at i would still think this was a cool pic. I even love how the neighbors light is streaking into the sky like spewing vomit. Is “embiggen” even a word? If not, I’m glad you invented it.


  9. Looks like you got it good. I stepped outside myself. But couldn’t see anything. I could see a good view of Mars though.

  10. hale_bopp

    I just saw all three of them go by earlier this evening. I drove out to Saguaro National Park East (I live on the east side of Tucson). I saw Jules Verne pass right below the Pleiades! When the ISS came, I was ready and waiting with my camera! You can see the pic at

    You can see the skyglow from Tucson in the lower half of the image.

    This is a VERY new web site, so give me a break…I am working on it :)

  11. Jeff Forsberg

    Glad you posted these shots. I am in south Denver (Highland Ranch) and could not see much because of a thin layer of clouds. Very jealous that you had the view from just 30 miles north… looks like other good viewing opportunities are in the near future, so I’ll keep my eyes to the sky.

  12. Michael Lonergan

    Good photo! Did you get just the one?

  13. Kevin L.

    Very cool. I have to say, Phil, that this post among many others is exemplar of why your blog is so great. I always enjoy and agree with your posts on politics, religion, anti-science, or skepticism, and they provide a unique perspective compared to similar blogs, but your posts on astronomy are not something I can get elsewhere. As a university student lacking the time or resources to get into these things myself (or is that just a rationalization?), it is a thrill to read about a science that often gets downplayed compared to others from an expert who can not only bring the big ideas down to the level of the layman, but who also discusses astronomy for the everyman, such as in this post. Perhaps even more so than other scientist bloggers, you represent what science needs in our culture: an expert who on one hand is unafraid to speak his voice on the big issues and who on the other is very capable of communicating his knowledge in terms that everyone can understand. It’s always a pleasure to read what you have to say, and yours is a blog that I know I can visit every day and expect to learn something new or see something extraordinary about astronomy. Thanks for doing what you do.

  14. Courtney

    Unfortunately, I didn’t see the posting about the ISS/Shuttle/Jules Verne until just a few minutes after they had passed my location, but I did manage to get a picture of an Iridium flare last Friday. I was able to get right on the ground track of the flare, so it was extremely bright (magnitude -8 according to Heavens Above).

  15. Seeing things like this really help to re-ignite that astronomical flame, sorta thing, back in me. Thanks alot, man!

  16. Aerimus

    I remember watching Discovery and the ISS way back in 2001 or something. It was just a few hours after undocking and was such a beautiful sight watching the two glide across the night sky. And to think that I caught it by accident. I wasn’t even sure what I was watching until I got inside and checked Heavens Above.

  17. DrFlimmer

    BA, hale_bopp, Courtney:
    really very great pics! Watching the ISS is always a cool thing. Unfortunatly, the weather is all but good here in Germany – we even had snow in the last days which is quite seldom in the “Ruhrgebiet” in the middle of march. So I didn’t get a glimps of the ISS, Endeavour and the ATV in the last few days and I never saw the vehicles seperated – I must-see in the future…

    So, thanks for the pics, they are really (H)awesome!

  18. Newbie

    The Jules Verne remote cargo carrier was almost a full three minutes ahead of Shuttle/ISS from where we stood (Southeast US). The Little Newbie enjoyed the show.

  19. Derek

    I was doing my evening blog check, and came across your news post about the sattelites at about 8:30PM Mountain. ACK! 9:05 flyover? Must call family! So I called my mom and dad up in Montrose, CO and my sister, who got up my science loving niece up in Delta, CO to watch.

    THey, like me, saw it too! My wife and I took my four year old out and watched it from near DURANGO, Colorado. It – they – disappeared about ten degrees to the right of Orion’s belt.

    We may have also seen the re-supply capsule, as there was another object on the same trajectory about two minutes BEFORE the station. Could that have been it? I was worried, because I thought perhaps the Heavens Above site had been inaccurate, but then the ISS and STS-123 rose at *exactly* the times predicted for our exact location. Now that was some impressive science!

  20. Cool beans, Phil!! Glad you could get a glimpse of it; wish we’d been there to see it!

    It’s amazing what you can do with a tripod and a digital camera. During the last lunar eclipse I took some shots with a tripod balanced on the hood of my car and a little HP camera. Not bad for quick, spur-of-the-moment shots on a freezing cold night!

  21. Palmin

    Here’s a nice movie of the ATV and ISS:

  22. Koro

    Next time, bring a pellet gun and take out your neighbor’s lights.

  23. Michael Lonergan

    Koro, my thoughts exactly! But I thought the neighbor might already be concerned about BA’s roof-top activities! When I read that, all I could think about was Griswald in Christmas Vacation crawling around on his roof wreaking all kinds of damage…

  24. hale_bopp

    I tried three shots. Unfortunately, only one came out well.

    When I got the parking lot at the park, another car was about to leave. They saw me setting up a camera and asked what I was doing. I told them about the pass and they decided to stay and watch. It’s always nice to share with others. They even were on their cell phones calling friends and family during the passes telling them to go outside! I think it also impressed them that I knew exactly where they would appear and when…the power of science to make preditions.

    Nice Iridium flare, Courtney. You can see how its brightness changes during the exposure.

  25. Palmin

    Hmm, seems like the URL I posted previously was stripped? Here we go again:

    Here’s a nice movie of the ATV and ISS:

  26. MandyDax

    @starcat: Embiggen is a perfectly cromulent word. ~_^

    @BA: These are really great photos, especially for all the light pollution across the way. Maybe next time you can talk the neighbor into turning it off for a few minutes. Or maybe, the top of the Flatirons would be a better place to view from.

    I’ve been rereading Earthlight, and I can totally imagine that you are one of the astronomers at the Observatory on the Moon. You’d totally be there.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:
    “And remember: all I had here was a tripod, a digital camera, and some foreknowledge. Thatâ??s really all it takes!”

    Erm, Phil, I think you also had a fourth thing – a clear sky!

  28. anonymous_PI

    @Dave Brigetti : check out J-Track 3D from NASA.

    Completely awesome.

  29. Joshua Zucker

    Thanks BA! I missed the shuttle but thanks to you I went and checked up on which I hadn’t visited for a while.

    A bunch of my teacher colleagues went outside tonight and saw the Jules Verne and then the ISS passing almost directly overhead (altitude 70 degrees and 80 degrees) and WAY bright (mag -0.5 and -2.5) at about 8:30pm, late enough for the skies here to be dark and early enough for the ISS to stay lit almost the whole way across the sky.

    The really awesome part is that we had a light drizzle at about 6pm and I was sure that after telling all my colleagues about it, all we’d see is cloud. But it cleared up really nicely, just a couple little clouds and none in the way!

  30. Beth Katz

    I planned to see these and get pictures. I had the camera batteries charged and had rechecked the timings at Heavens-Above. I was going to get two passes in the same night. It was clear at 4pm but mostly overcast by 8pm and with solid clouds in the viewing area. For the second pass, it was solid cloud cover. Drat!

    Last June, I got this photo:

    BA, thanks for sharing your view.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar